A Space for Expansive Listening

Axel Kacoutié and Lou Mensah on their new collaboration, Interludes

Interview by Dale Berning Sawa

Axel Kacoutié and Lou Mensah, 2022. Photo: Kid Circus

  • 23 September 2022

Since 2019, photographer and broadcaster Lou Mensah has carved out a space all her own with Shade Podcast. Through image-focused interviews with curators, artists, writers and activists—from American writer Lauren Michele Jackson to British art critic duo, the White Pube—she has mined the intersection between race and art. Season four in 2021 saw Mensah tackle the most salient images of the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020 with generosity of spirit and gaze unflinching.

This month sees the release of a collaboration between Shade Podcast and the London-based audio artist and poet, Axel Kacoutié. Entitled Interludes, it runs over six episodes, each dedicated to one specific artwork in concert with the artist. From British-Kenyan interdisciplinary artist Phoebe Boswell to the African-American master painter, Amy Sherald—alongside Ming Smith, Rahima Gambo, Nnena Kalu and Cassi Namoda—the podcast is an experiment in expansive listening. It takes as its premise the idea that art isn’t only something to dissect intellectually. It should also be felt, a full-body experience.

To do that, they settled on a set of works to which Kacoutié would respond with sound. Even a cursory dive into Kacoutié’s oeuvre hints at the potential here. Alongside sound design and composition for outlets including the Guardian, the BBC and Monocle, he has produced award-winning audio works. He wields sound the way a dancer does his muscles: with precision, efficiency and an untethered kind of grace. He has a way of telling a story that makes you feel like it’s your own; it’s that intimate, that enveloping.

When he and Mensah first connected on Instagram and then spoke about working together, the theme for Interludes wasn’t even a discussion. They instinctively chimed with the idea that what they needed to offer their listeners was what they themselves sought: a space in which to be, together.

‘Our collaboration was about creating a space where there's not an answer, no right or wrong, just room to explore.’—Lou Mensah

Lou Mensah: I first came across your poetry on Instagram. It was beautiful. It felt like an uncommonly safe space in which to process challenging feelings and subject matter. I was immediately drawn in. The first piece I found was How to Remember and I listened to it over and over and over. It was about belonging and identity and your travels to the Cote d'Ivoire. The words were interspersed with sound recordings, clips from your childhood, all enmeshed. And it's the first time that I've listened to a sound piece, where I was in this other person's world, who I didn't know very well, but that instantly connected my world and my experiences.

Axel Kacoutié: I was still experimenting with Instagram, trying to figure out how I wanted to be seen on social media, how I wanted to engage with people and express myself creatively, and it was around that time that we connected. When I saw your account, I thought this is really cool. I mean, my introduction to art and the art world was through Tumblr. That was the way things became accessible and understandable for me, all way back in 2012. And your work, Lou, was a continuation of that. When you reached out and said how much How to Remember had affected you, it was like a positive affirmation. We became two islands just doing our thing. Especially during the Black Lives Matter stuff in 2020, I could see the way you were breaking down the images and talking about art. There was so much thought, and presence and urgency and heart, in every expression, in every post. Up until that point, I wasn't even really listening so much to the podcast, I was just enjoying what you were sharing and talking about and engaging with.

‘I enjoy the double entendre, of both shade as in color and hue and the space you take refuge in, under a tree. A living thing that provides sanctuary, repose, rest, respite.’—Axel Kacoutié

LM: Your soundworld really helps me process art imagery. I find it so complimentary. One of the reasons that I was thinking of the idea for this new season of the Shade podcast—Interludes—is that on a personal level, I find it so difficult to process the intellectualization that surrounds art: the words, the interpretations, the text, you know, there's a lot of that. I really enjoy the sound worlds that you create. It represents feeling rather than thought. And that is why it works so well with the visual world. To me, it just removes the noise that surrounds our experiences of art or situations—whatever is happening around us. Your interpretation through sound cuts straight to the heart, which really works for me. That's what images do as well. So I think there's a really interesting connection there. Words are not my primary medium. In fact, they are probably at the bottom of my list of preferred forms of communication.

AK: Growing up, I didn't see words as a strength for me. It is so apt that you use the word ‘feeling’ because that is it. Beyond any type of identity that exists in the societal sense, if people were to ask me to characterize myself, I'd be a cloud. A cloud that can change colors and densities—it's just the best way to describe feeling, for me. I think about metaphor a lot and synesthesia. I've recently discovered I am synesthetic, but I feel like everyone is, to a certain degree. So it's not necessarily about exploring my uniqueness, but understanding how experience and feeling informs language. My approach is to not say that ‘I know’ or ‘This is how you should feel,’ but to simply present an idea. And we’re in alignment on that—I could listen to you speak for hours, you have such a depth of knowledge and experience, and I can see what you're reaching for.

LM: Our collaboration was about creating a space where there's not an answer, no right or wrong, just room to explore. When we were at the beginning stages, we constantly referred to one piece, that we both, independently, sent to each other. It is a short film by filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, called Until the Quiet Comes. It’s this image of a dancer, shot in slow motion and how he uses his space—this liminal, in-between space—is something we kept coming back to. How he was using his body to communicate within the space, within his community, within the story of this video—he slides and fills the space like liquid. That was a grounding for this whole series.

AK: I knew of the video because of the artists Flying Lotus using it in their promo for their album, but I didn’t know who Joseph was. I remember it being conjured up by the chats we were having.

LM: I first approached you about working together sometime after the last season of Shade, Black Images Matter. That season was quite a lot of heavy lifting in terms of emotional processing. I didn't want to produce a new season that would be full of words. After all of the Black Lives Matter work, I just wanted to kind of pull away and look for healing. I wanted to kind of provide a space for the audience to be able to do that as well. We wanted to offer this visceral connection between the artwork, the artist and the audience, without words—just sound and imagery, something really intimate. I remember you said you wanted this to be like a prayer or an invocation.

AK: Yes, something that allows us to slow down. Even the trailer hasn’t presented our project with that usual ‘Hey, this is Lou! And this is Axel!’ kind of way. No, it’s been sounds and vignettes coming in and out, a different tempo and pace, that almost compels the body to match that rhythm. Research has found that in a crowded club or space, people's hearts begin to synchronise with each other and that palpable energy and rhythm. We’ve come into this with a similar intention. We wanted to invite slowness, thoughtfulness, and feeling. We wanted something that would quieten the mind.

Ming Smith, Circle of Life, Hakone Japan, 1985 © Ming Smith

Amy Sherald, For love, and for country, 2022 © Amy Sherald. Photo: Joseph Hyde

‘I want things to open up. I don't want corners. That's how I move in the world. You know how expansive a nice warm bath feels? I crave that. That's what I look for.’—Axel Kacoutié

LM: When we went through the process of choosing the six artworks to which you would then respond through sound, of course, we had a long list of people whose works we resonated with. Whittling that down was a long process—it’s been going on for nearly a year. And what is so interesting to me is that the artists that have settled with us just have that symbiosis with the way that we're thinking.

AK: Leaning into that whole thing about creating a kind of liminal space is what the word ‘shade’ invokes for me. I enjoy the double entendre, of both shade as in color and hue and the space you take refuge in, under a tree. A living thing that provides sanctuary, repose, rest, respite.

LM: That was perfect! Shade is also inspired by WEB Du Bois' idea of the veil. As black people, behind this veil is where we really are, where we can really be ourselves—where we inhabit and interpret and fill this double consciousness. It is where we are safe, where we can be ourselves. On the other side of the veil—out front of it—is where we have to present ourselves to the white world with its expectations, its ideas about who we are and what our place is, how we feel and think. This is where our bodies, our thoughts, our minds, our existence is reinterpreted in a way that is not our intention.

AK: Making this collaboration explicitly about healing was definitely a mix between conscious decision and appetite. There's a fatigue with how blackness, I guess, is presented in the media, as a whole, in the western world. There are very familiar, very flat representations, whether it's about black maleness, or the classes of blackness, whether it's respectability of how to move in the white world, or the idea of what is put on me by existing or by being seen. And it isn't me. It's not like I'm rejecting blackness, but pointing back to that cloud, I guess, like, pointing back to that sense of something that is nameless, and timeless, and has no confines and the boundaries are constantly blurred. You look to the natural world, and you know, you can't isolate individual parts of it. It’s never just ‘the tree’ because the tree is a home as well being an organism as well being on a hill and that hill has a community … There's a real compartmentalization of identities that I don't want to constantly perform. So this idea of healing is about being, about being seen, being felt, and feeling expansive, rather than limited. I want things to open up. I don't want corners. That's how I move in the world. You know how expansive a nice warm bath feels? I crave that. That's what I look for.

LM: The beginning of the process was very instinctive—thinking about which works I carry with me, which are always in my mind and why I love them. I realised that, similarly to how that first piece of Axel's made me feel, these works gave me a sense of being home, being recognised, comforted, connected. The first that came to mind was an image by Ming Smith, called Circle of Life. Ming is of course known for her use of light in such a striking, delicate way, which really resonated with the theme. She took this photograph in 1985 in Japan...

AK: And she didn't think too much of it at the time! In fact, it was her son's response to the image that made her look at it again with new eyes. They travel together pretty much all the time and it was his experiences, through his eyes—which I really understand now as a new parent; her son was three, my son is two. She described to me how he was talking about the people and the space and the culture and how that is what made her look back at the work she had made there in a different way. I really love the fact that it wasn't something that drew her consciously, straight away, it was more of an unconscious thing. I can relate to that as an artist. There are things that you create, because you just need to get it out of you.

LM: Ming is an icon. She was the first black woman photographer to be included in the collections of MoMA and the first woman to be invited into the Kamoinge Workshop, in New York. It's her strength as well as the beauty of the work that made her a first choice for us. We’re really lucky that she responded.

Phoebe Boswell, Do We Muse On The Sky Or Remember The Sea, 2021 © Phoebe Boswell. Courtesy Prospect New Orleans. Photo: Alex Marks

Cassi Namoda, Worship at Bar Mundo, 2022 © Cassi Namoda. Courtesy the artist and and Xavier Hufkens Gallery, from the show Tropical Depression

AK: The idea of not using words and working in a liminal dreamlike space has definitely been a thread throughout the conversations I’ve had with the artists. When I was speaking with Phoebe Boswell about her image and how I responded to it and how I was assuming it must have had some particular importance or resonance for her, she was like, ‘Yeah, there’s a bit of that. But let me tell you about this.’ The viewer has their own subjective experience, their projections and that is okay you know. There isn’t an objective way of understanding art. The way an exhibition might be sold has nothing to do with pure expression and intuition and how the work makes you, as the viewer, feel.

LM: Nnena Kalu is particularly interesting in this way. She is part of the Action Space collective, with artists who have differing learning needs. But what is interesting to me was how she works. It is this instinctual need that she has to create these lines and these marks. They just have such beautiful fluidity and depth of expression to them. We cannot place an articulation on Nana’s work for her. It speaks for itself. We cannot intellectualize the work or put meanings on to it. She often will work on two full-scale canvases at the same time, placed next to each other, creating one mark on the left-hand side and then going over to create a similar mark on the right-hand side. It’s a dance between both canvases. And the sense of grounding and balance that I got from watching her work—it was completely hypnotic. I know all artists work in instinctual ways, but Kalu's work particularly resonates with the space that we're creating here. And you went to her studio as she was creating.

AK: It’s always quite exciting to see an artist at work—in the zone. But when I saw how Nnena moves, I knew I needed to capture the movement. It was consciousness in movement. I had the microphone and I was following the pen, pencil, charcoal, whatever medium she was using. I could never assume to know where she'd go next on her canvas, everything was unpredictable and that unpredictability created a form. I was sweating by the end of it. And I love that because again, this was not a cerebral exercise, it was a fully embodied experience. By the end of that recording process, I could sense that there was a level of closeness and acceptance and flow that we were both in, in that expression. Even Charlotte, the woman who primarily cares for Nnena when she's working, was like, ‘Yeah, maybe we can do this, again, in a live setting.’ It was so hypnotic and trancelike, an almost ASMR type of sensorial experience, a physical experience, a spatial experience—with the sound panning from left to right as we moved together.

Nnena Kalu in the studio, 2022. Photo: Axel Kacoutié

LM: From the outset we were talking about lullabies and creating something that, for the listeners, would be like when you’re singing a lullaby to a child, and they drift off and they're held in that space. Interestingly, the artists we ended up actually working with are all women. So there is a feminine aspect to the project. And an inclusive one too. That experience of going to exhibitions where you see the artwork, you read the text on the wall, you're handed leaflets, you can put the earphones on if you want to, but that's further explanation with further words. And that can be bamboozling. It can remove us from feeling, it takes us back into our heads. Instead we wanted to give listeners an intimate connection with the artists. Quite often what's forgotten are people who are neurodiverse or have other challenges that make the art gallery experience less inviting.

AK: Linked to neurodiversity is how people learn and access things. Growing up in school, I wasn't the type of person that read a lot. My mom was always anxious about it. Now, you cannot take a book away from me, but also, now I have audiobooks. It makes sense—I'm an aural person. Sometimes I think that if there had been an audiobook, for every single thing I had to read at school, maybe I would have read it. It's that kind of access we're thinking about—widening the field of entry, so that everyone at whatever level they're at, can access the art and the healing it has the potential to bring.

Listen to Season 5 of Shade Podcast, ‘Interludes,’ launching 27 September 2022 on all podcast platforms.

Lou Mensah is the host of Shade podcast which engages a wide community of creatives across disciplines, who have challenged existing narratives on representation and identity within their work. Lou has worked in the creative industries for over 20 years, as a fine art photographer and lecturer at Central Saint Martins, collaborating with major institutions, fashion houses and internationally celebrated artists. Shade has received widespread critical acclaim, including the silver award for ‘Best Art & Culture Podcast’ in the British Podcast Awards 2021.

Axel Kacoutié is a creator who has been crafting sound, music and words to challenge the familiar and revive a magic in the mundane. They are the Creative Director of Sound for Guardian Podcasts (UK) and the sound designer and theme composer for its flagship daily news podcast, Today in Focus. Their work has featured on the BBC and institutions such as the Barbican. They have received awards from Third Coast: Best Documentary Gold Award, Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Award, British Podcast Awards and many more.